Bettina Blohm’s paintings are Haiku-like visual landscapes that distill emotion into abstract form. They reflect a love of Eastern art with its focus on intuitive states of mind. Blohm’s paintings also engage with a Matisse inspired sense of color and an Abstract Expressionist scale, both of which come across especially within her compositional placement of gesture and shape. Enigmatic shapes or nature forms often seem to imply human presences. In earlier works where the human silhouette is depicted, more tensions arise which are emphasized by color contrasts and the formal placement of figures in relation to each other.
The following excerpts from an extended interview reveal the philosophy and approach she developed over 20 years as a painter and graphic artist. Her work forges together influences from Modernist and Asian art into a personal approach which is stands in opposition to prevailing postmodern and conceptual trends.
I am interested in your dedication to painting with historical roots in an aesthetic and Modernist tradition.
I work in the Modernist tradition. Someone once called me a third generation Abstract Expressionist. I believe the formal language is still relevant and can be built on. In the best Abstract Expressionist works there is a unity between the act of painting and their feeling and the world.
You clearly love the expansiveness of Abstract Expressionist scale and Matissean color.
Matisse is the greatest painter of the 20th century to me. Nobody else even comes close. Of course I love his color, but also his variety of formal solutions, his way of arresting shapes on canvas, and how each form is alive. His paintings are complex yet look simple.
I tend to see a close analogy to your work in Milton Avery’s landscapes where elements become compressed in simple abstract motifs.
I like Avery’s color and the generosity in his later paintings. In those late works he achieves a beautiful synthesis between formal rigor and looseness and an exquisite poetic sense. In some paintings the motif becomes so compressed it is like a metaphor: a black and white bird hovering over a gray sea in Plunging Gull 1960 or the green horizon line which seems to contain the sea like a bathtub in Dunes and Sea 1960.
You have talked about your interest in Asian landscape painting and the abstract work of the Japanese American artist Miyoko Ito.
My first real encounter with Asian art was in 1992 in London at the exhibit of woodcuts by Hokusai at the Royal Academy. Certain images responded to my search for abstraction in figuration. Because Asian art was never that concerned with imitating nature the artists developed a greater individual freedom and expressiveness in their gesturers. I love the sense of poetry, of spareness, of essence, of humanity that I feel in these paintings. My ideas come from the visual world, or more specifically for the last 10 years from landscape, and that gives me something to push against. This is one of the pleasures I get from looking at Miyoko Ito’s paintings. Her mature work is abstract and completely self contained yet it is obvious how hard she looked at the movement of water or the spatial construction of a landscape.
When you arrived in New York in 1984 you were making paintings of trees with a kind of Expressionist fervor. What did these early tree works signify to you?
I came to new York right after finishing art school in Munich. I chose the tree as a motif because I had a strong emotional connection with trees. I would walk around the city’s parks and photograph different trees and then paint them in my studio. They were urban trees with chopped off branches which made them seem more human.
Human figure and silhouettes appear in your later paintings like Where Are They Going? from 1992. I cannot help feeling a sense of anonymity and distance in these figural works, with a rumble of emotional intensity just palpable below the surface. What was going through your mind?
At that time I hid my more emotional gestures under layers of flat paint and only at the borders between shapes could one see this undercurrent of turmoil. Formally it was a way to create depth. I wanted flat shapes but I also wanted to retain a sense of emotional urgency. Where Are They Going? was done at the time of the first Gulf war and the title reflects my feeling of hopelessness, the sense that everybody just followed mindlessly.
It seems nature and abstraction have given you a way for you to reflect on interior states of mind – a reflective space that at times balances between solitude and loneliness. Do you feel this too?
I always separate things. Every shape has a clear outline and there are borders; nowhere does one thing “bleed” into another. That may give a sense of isolation that you mention. I have a very strong sense of human loneliness and isolation: nature, however, offers me a sense of wholeness and connectedness.
I am struck by the difference between your works on paper and your paintings, especially because the paper works are more expressively stark and don’t often use color.
I rarely use color because drawing, for me, is about mark making. Drawing is the most direct, honest or humble visual medium. You cannot lie with drawing. From a drawn line you can immediately see the temperament of the artist. This is one of the pleasures I have with Classical Chinese landscape painting: after many centuries and over vast cultural differences you can still see the individual artist at work.
How has growing up in Germany shaped your art? What are the things you see as distinctive about having a European background that are still with you living in New York?
Growing up in Europe I may have a stronger feeling for painting as a medium with a long history. But its a specific culture, in my case German. I only became conscious of it when I moved here. Being European I may have a stronger sense of the precarious nature of the world. Life is not black and white but has gray zones. I loved New York city as soon as I arrived. I loved the nervousness and chaos of the city. I also loved that women were treated as equal and one had the sense that it was still possible to add something to the history of art. Today I have a nice combination of both worlds. I work in New York and travel 2 – 3 times a year to Germany where I have had some success with shows.
You have been a committed painter for over 20 years with a consciousness of what is going on in the contemporary art world in New York over a long period of time. What is your view of present affairs?
As a friend of mine says: today artists are like racehorses. Again and again artists are destroyed through commercialization. It is a fundamental problem in the American art world and not new. Eugene O’Neill describes in his play Long Day’s Journey into Night a gifted actor who got seduced by money and fame into playing the same part over and over.
And art education?
I believe art education has become too academic. Powerful emotions are at the basis of all art making. Today we do not have a compelling formal language as other times did and young artists have to find their way through a jungle of possibilities. The result is often an anxious obedience to the latest fashion.
What do you attribute this to?
Art movements have always been connected to political environments. There has been a feeling of apathy and cynicism, a feeling that nothing mattered but money that has been dominant in the art world and in the political system. The esthetic of an artist like John Currin is closely linked to the politics of George Bush; it is based on an all-pervasive contempt for people. If the political situation changes it may bring back some idealism and belief in art.